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What ‘All American’ Gets Right—and Hilariously Wrong—About High School Football Culture

How many steps does it take to run a curl route? Are teenage kickers suddenly infallible? And what else can we learn from the CW series now streaming on Netflix? 

CW/Ringer illustration

There are plenty of on-again, off-again romances in All American. After all, it’s a teen drama—the show’s primary elements are hot people making out with other hot people, hot people making out with other other hot people, and characters saying things like, “Maybe we should tell your son the truth about what really happened all those years ago …” three seconds before the credits roll. (There are 32 episodes of All American thus far; I’d estimate about 29 of them end this way.)

But the most interesting on-again, off-again relationship in All American is the show’s flirtation with football realism. The series is based loosely on the story and career of Spencer Paysinger, who grew up in South Los Angeles, played football at Beverly Hills High School, and excelled in both college (Paysinger was a key linebacker on the Oregon team that made the 2011 BCS national championship game) and the NFL (he played seven seasons in the league, winning Super Bowl XLVI with the Giants). In All American, Paysinger is represented by Spencer James (played by Daniel Ezra), who gets spotted at South Crenshaw High by NFL star turned Beverly High head coach Billy Baker (played by Taye Diggs). James decides to play for Baker—but TV Spencer soon learns that his new mentor had secret reasons for plucking him from his former neighborhood.

The show’s dedication to tackling new story lines at a breakneck pace is borderline comical: Spencer begins Season 1 playing for South Crenshaw, transfers after his team’s first game, moves into a new house in a new neighborhood, gets a job as a waiter, attempts to single-handedly end gang violence in Los Angeles, begins dating a new girlfriend, and tries to rekindle a relationship with his long-lost biological father. He does all of this while acing his courses, learning a new playbook (the show specifically calls out how different Beverly’s playbook is from Crenshaw’s), playing on defense for the first time, and commuting back and forth between Crenshaw and Beverly Hills through Los Angeles traffic even though he doesn’t have access to a car. (He is never shown sleeping.)

I don’t doubt that the people involved in All American understand football culture; Paysinger serves as a producer and consultant, and ostensibly provided guidance on both his life story and the football elements of the show. However, football always takes a back seat to more important stuff: the dizzying array of new relationships, ambitions, and projects pursued by hot young people. While All American is more steeped in the language of high school recruiting than any show I’ve ever seen, it is happy to invent completely nonsense football scenarios to better service its non-football plotlines. Here are my six favorite ways All American portrays things that sort of resemble real football culture, but swerve with hilarious effects.

The Route Running Is Distractingly Terrible

There’s one notable problem with Ezra’s performance as the show’s lead actor: He’s from Birmingham, and not the one in Alabama. Yes, the star of All American is All English.

It’s not that Ezra does a bad job playing Spencer; he perfectly captures Spencer’s four core traits: passion, cockiness, anger (the “Cares Too Much About the People Around Him” version), and more anger (the “Dad Isn’t Around” version). You can’t tell he’s British from his acting alone—when I watch videos of him switching back and forth between accents, I can’t shake the thought that his American accent is real and his British one is fake. But he didn’t grow up playing American football, and it shows. You’re telling me that the 57th-ranked recruit in the country needs 27 steps to get into the break at the top of a curl route?

Look in the comments of that tweet and you’ll see actual NFL receivers clowning on Spencer’s route running. And the ball damn near hits Spencer in the chest when he tries to catch it. Use your hands, not your body!

Michael Evans Behling, who plays Jordan, posted a video of himself casually playing catch with Ezra. Ezra isn’t exactly fluid:

There’s a College Program Exclusively for Dirty Players

Someday, we’ll laugh at the fact that college football players were once not only disallowed from receiving money, but also punished and demonized for accepting any cash. With each passing month, the NCAA’s insistence on maintaining the vestiges of amateurism seems less and less tenable. But this is the world in which All American resides, so of course there’s a plotline in which incorruptible goody-goody Spencer is offered cash to help out his struggling family. He proudly turns it down, instead getting a job as a waiter in a local restaurant to help pay for his mom’s college tuition.

Midway through Season 1, Spencer shows out at a midseason combine for elite high school players (not a thing) and catches the eye of recruiters and boosters from local Angeles Southern University (also not a thing). A coach from Angeles Southern approaches Baker and explains that the Chinchillas are interested in a package deal: They want Spencer to play receiver and Baker to become an assistant coach. (I’ve decided that Angeles Southern’s sports teams are called the Chinchillas. All American never specifies the mascot, but if the school has a ridiculous name like “Angeles Southern,” I’m going to give it a ridiculous mascot too.)

An Angeles Southern booster approaches Spencer with an invitation to a 7-on-7 game for elite prospects (sort of a thing, although it would never be run by college boosters). When Spencer opens the envelope, however, he is shocked and stunned to find that it contains $2,000 in cash. He tries to return the money, but is rebuffed, and then confronts a South Crenshaw player who accepted the bag. (“So you’re cool being bought and paid for?”) Spencer later goes to Coach Baker, who is equally shocked and stunned by the booster money. (Baker illegally gave Spencer several thousand dollars in cash as “allowance” roughly five episodes earlier, but now has decided cash payments to players are morally hideous.) I straight-up guffawed at Diggs’s super-serious delivery here. “A booster? Are you sure?”

Baker confronts the Angeles Southern coach to let him know about the payment—and is shocked and stunned to discover that the Angeles Southern coach knew about it all along. While Baker furiously protests, noting how the cash payouts could put his player’s eligibility at risk, the coach explains that payouts and booster gifts are all part of the game; he says that if Spencer doesn’t shut up and take the cash, his scholarship will be revoked. “Whistleblowers get coaches fired, and a kid like that can’t be controlled,” the Angeles Southern coach says. “I guess the James kid isn’t Angeles Southern material—and neither are you.”

Let’s break down this ridiculous series of events. I guess I’d believe the premise of a top recruit turning down booster cash; it seems uncommon, but I’m sure it has happened at least once in the history of college football. Yet All American goes a step further, creating a program that refuses to accept players who won’t take payouts, and pulls scholarships from those who decline to take cash. It’s not just that Angeles Southern breaks the rules—the school literally only considers players willing to break rules to be “Angeles Southern material.”

I don’t know about you, but this school exclusively for rulebreakers seems awesome. The show repeatedly highlights the excesses of the elite, willing to burn money on frivolous things like parties and football, and contrasts it with how hard life is for the talented athletes for whom they root. But then All American has the gall to take a moral stand against cash flowing from the overmonied fans to grinding, broke players? Angeles Southern may have lost a future star by pulling Spencer’s scholarship, but it gained a lifelong fan. Go Chinchillas!

The PA Announcer Doesn’t Understand His Job

There are two types of sports announcers: broadcast announcers and PA announcers. Broadcast announcers are the ones you hear on TV, who give a play-by-play accounting of a game while providing color commentary on who’s playing well, who’s playing poorly, and what story lines are the most important. PA announcers are the ones you hear while attending a game, and typically announce only the basic information fans in the stands need to know: who scored on a given play, who is being called for a penalty, and whether a silver Toyota Prius is about to be towed from the parking lot.

All American conflates these two roles. At Beverly games, an announcer provides play-by-play and color commentary that reverberates over the stadium sound system. Imagine playing in the biggest game of the season and having someone absolutely roast you every time you make a mistake.

All American isn’t the first onscreen representation of football to botch this distinction. As The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy noted in her breakdown of the big football game on HBO’s Euphoria, the PA announcers in that show referred to how a character’s recent sexual assault charge was affecting his mind-set during the game, to a crowd of thousands, including all of the players. Still, this feels like an easily avoidable mistake, and All American makes it in every single football game over two full seasons.

7-on-7 Is Treated Just Like Regular Football

The first season of All American follows Spencer’s junior year at Beverly High. I assumed that the second season would follow his senior year, but the showrunners apparently decided there were stories to be told before that. There’s just one problem with this choice: There’s no football in between football seasons!

So the show created a clever workaround. Spencer and the Eagles spend Season 2 playing in a competitive 7-on-7 league against other area high schools. 7-on-7 is real, but neither the playing format nor the competitive structure shown in All American resembles real-life 7-on-7. In real life, 7-on-7 is a noncontact version of the sport designed to allow skill-position players to compete during the offseasons without putting their bodies at risk of serious injury. There’s no reason a high school program would consider an offseason 7-on-7 league to be anywhere near as meaningful as a fall 11-man season, since it’s essentially practice with a scoring system.

In All American, though, characters treat 7-on-7 like real football—which makes sense, because the game play looks alarmingly like real football. Here’s how 7-on-7 looks in real life; here’s how it looks on All American:

7-on-7 is meant to be football without violence, but that doesn’t fit All American’s narrative needs. The above clip is from an episode in which Spencer’s new team plays against Spencer’s old team, so of course things have to get chippy. Even in the other 7-on-7 games, players wear helmets and attempt to make tackles. There are instances when teams have a live pass rush and an offensive lineman, and the scores seem to indicate that there is a kicker:

At a critical juncture in a 7-on-7 tournament, Beverly runs a play featuring a fake handoff to the running back.

What’s the point of fake handoff when you’re not allowed to hand the ball off in 7-on-7? Clearly that doesn’t matter, because Spencer catches a touchdown pass and Beverly wins. I guess the nerds are right: You can never run too much play action.

Who Is This Miracle Kicker?

The first season of All American concludes with a pivotal playoff game between—and this may shock you—Spencer’s new team, Beverly High, and Spencer’s old team, South Crenshaw. Wow! Who saw that coming? And—again, this will shock you—the game is tied in the final moments of regulation. It looks like Beverly is going to lose, as South Crenshaw drives into Beverly territory and sets up for a 32-yard field goal for the win. As the PA announcer acting like a play-by-play guy explains, South Crenshaw’s kicker hasn’t missed a kick from closer than 45 yards all season long:

I want to be clear: If there was a high school kicker who never missed kicks from under 45 yards, he would be an absolute god. Do you know how many qualifying NFL kickers went through last season without missing a kick from within 45 yards? Two! Just the Eagles’ Jake Elliott and the Jaguars’ Josh Lambo. That’s out of the 32 NFL teams! Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship won the Lou Groza Award as the best kicker in college football last year, and he missed three kicks from under 45 yards, including one that cost his team a game against South Carolina. And college kickers are much, much, much better than high school kickers. (If the claim is actually that he hasn’t missed from inside the 45-yard line, that would technically be a 62-yarder. I am going to assume this is not what the PA play-by-play announcer meant, as the longest field goal in NFL history is 64 yards.)

Many high schools don’t have a player who specializes in kicking field goals; maybe they’ll have the most athletic kid on the team try it, or maybe they’ll just avoid kicking field goals entirely. Last year, the top kicking recruit according to 247Sports went his entire senior year without making a kick from longer than 45 yards. (He went 16-of-21 on all field goals, but I can’t find the distances of his misses.)

Long story short, I need a spinoff series about South Crenshaw having the best kicker in the nation, and maybe the best high school kicker of all time.

The Show Is a Bewildering Reconfiguration of Southern California’s Football Powerhouses

All American does an impressive job capturing the gist of Crenshaw football. In the show, it’s a program that used to produce NFL stars like Billy Baker but now struggles to field a team since talent from the neighborhood trickled, then flooded, into programs with increased visibility and funding. That’s more or less accurate: Crenshaw High has produced the third-most NFL players of any high school in California, including Kabeer and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and Brandon Mebane, but a Los Angeles Times article reveals that the school’s team only fielded 26 players last year. (It won a state championship in 2017, but in a division for smaller schools.)

However, the show screws up the flip side of that coin by making it seem like California’s top high school football comes from the mansion-speckled enclaves of the Hollywood elite. Spencer transfers to Beverly High, where he plays against a superior level of competition and where the cutthroat boosters demand championships and results. Beverly has a bitter rivalry with Malibu, and several Season 1 episodes surround an all-important matchup between the two teams for the division title.

If you asked me to name two places in Southern California before I moved to Los Angeles, I probably would’ve said Beverly Hills and Malibu, so it makes sense that they’re the two powerhouses in this show. But I can’t stress enough how much they are not football powerhouses in real life. The Beverly Hills High football team (the Normans, for some reason) is currently riding a 21-game losing streak against Ocean League opponents. This past year, it went 3-9 and was outscored 254-23 in conference play—and that was its best season since 2010. An article in Beverly Hills Weekly notes that the team only had 21 players for its season finale, a 55-0 loss to Culver City. As previously noted, Paysinger did play at Beverly Hills, but that had more to do with his uncle being the team’s head coach than the school having a reputation as a football juggernaut.

The idea of Malibu having a top-tier football team might be even less realistic, as the Sharks (great team name) recently dropped 11-man football in favor of 8-man due to a lack of numbers. The people in Malibu are not exactly football types; a Los Angeles Times article notes the high school’s surfing team has over twice as many participants as the football team. I mean, come on—did you think Gigi Hadid was gonna play linebacker?

All American’s upending of the existing Southern California football power structure is even stranger at the college level. Most of the schools in the show have fictional, Mad Libs–like names like Angeles Southern, Eastern Nevada, and Coastal California. There’s one exception: UCLA, the only real university that expresses any interest in the show’s players.

In Season 1, Spencer attends a UCLA–Eastern Nevada game and dreams of one day playing for the Bruins. In Season 2, he and his new housemate Darnell receive offers from UCLA and tour the school’s football facilities, where they learn that the Bruins are more than just a team—they’re family! Darnell commits on the spot. When Spencer tries to commit, he learns that his scholarship offer is on hold: UCLA coaches are worried that he—spoiler alert!—won’t be able to fully recover from a gunshot wound.

It seems there’s a tradeoff to letting your real college football team be a plotline in a fictional TV show. Sure, the show can make it seem as if your school is where all the hottest prospects want to play, but the show’s writers might also come up with a plotline where your coaches are heartless enough to pull a scholarship from a straight-A superstar who got shot. Why would any program subject itself to this?

I guess it’s a trade you’re willing to make when you’re UCLA, which offered 40 blue-chip recruits in the 2019 class and only got one to commit. For the second best of the two Pac-12 teams in Los Angeles, even fictional buzz is good buzz—which perhaps explains why the school’s real head coach, Chip Kelly, agreed to appear in the show for 19 glorious seconds:

OK, there’s another reason why Kelly agreed to be on the show—he was Paysinger’s head coach at Oregon. Despite making the Ducks a perennial powerhouse, Kelly left for the NFL in 2013, repeatedly citing one reason for his desire to go to the pros—he hates recruiting. He doesn’t like going on the road, he doesn’t like watching high school highlight tapes, and he certainly doesn’t like all the phone calls and texting and talking to people. So I have to admit there is one extremely accurate part of All American: Chip Kelly’s version of recruiting is talking to some extremely talented high schoolers for roughly 20 seconds, gritting his teeth, and then leaving.